When new GOP presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich recently advocated a "humane" approach to addressing illegal immigrants in America, some conservatives questioned whether it would fatally damage the former House Speaker's campaign.
After all, Texas Gov. Rick Perry saw his bid for the GOP nomination falter in part because of his support for a program that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
But a new survey in Iowa of some of the most conservative voters in the nation — that state's likely GOP caucus-goers — suggests that a wider swath of Republicans than previously believed support changes to immigration law that would help young people, as well as businesses and foreign-born entrepreneurs.
The survey, released Tuesday, showed that just 16 percent of likely Iowa GOP caucus attendees surveyed for a coalition of conservative Republicans said they were "outright opposed to proposals" that would modernize and expand legal immigration.
"This survey demonstrates that while opinions are strong on tough enforcement for illegal immigration, it is not the top-tier, hot-button issue among Republican caucus-goers it's often made out to be," says John Stineman, spokesman for the coalition of Iowa Republicans who are working with Partnership for a New American Economy, a national organization that supports immigration reform and sponsored the poll.
"It's eye-opening," Stineman says, and "resets" perceptions of how Iowa Republican caucus-goers view the issue.
Stineman, a GOP strategist who is not working for any of the Republican candidates, said: "There is clearly an appetite for working to solve problems with our legal immigration system, and Iowa Republicans make that connection that doing so can help grow our economy."
Des Moines pollster J. Ann Selzer conducted the survey Nov. 16-19. Selzer conducts the respected Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register and polls for Bloomberg News.
Reducing government spending and creating jobs "best reflects the mood" of caucus-goers this year, she says, and topped the list of issues important to Iowa Republicans. Fewer than half said that halting illegal immigration is a critical issue.
Social issues, including abortion, were seen by only 35 percent of those surveyed as critical this election year.
"This is a different year, this is a different mood, this is a different agenda," Selzer said.
Iowa Republicans, the survey found, overwhelmingly support tough border security, systems that verify the immigration status of new hires and punishment for businesses that hire those in the country illegally.
But they indicated in the survey that they are open to policies that help foreign-born young people educated in the U.S. to enter the workforce, as well as those that help companies hire seasonal and permanent employees for vacant jobs Americans are not filling.
They also expressed strong support for increasing opportunities for highly-skilled legal immigrants and entrepreneurs to come to the United States.
When asked about legal immigration, 57 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers surveyed said that it would be a "good idea" for the U.S. to expand legal immigration in a way that would create jobs.
"Likely Iowa caucus-goers separate concerns with illegal immigration from the potential opportunity of legal immigration," Selzer says.
There's an openness to modernizing the nation's visa policies, she says, including devising a temporary visa program for workers, both low- and high-skilled.
Of those surveyed, 83 percent described themselves as very or mostly conservative. Most had some college or a college degree, and skewed a little older.
"We all know that immigration can be controversial," Stineman says. "We wanted to dig a little deeper and get away from tired talking points."
Iowa Republicans get that immigration reform and visa reform can create jobs, he said.
What that means for Mitt Romney, recently overtaken by Gingrich in Iowa caucus polls as well as national polls, remains to be seen.
Romney has fashioned himself as a tough-on-illegal-immigration candidate, criticizing both Perry for his tuition stand and Gingrich for suggesting that illegal immigrants who have been here a long time, "paying taxes and obeying the law" should be allowed to stay.
The Partnership for a New American Economy describes itself as a bipartisan group of mayors and business leaders working to "raise awareness of the economic benefits of sensible immigration reform."
Its co-chairs include Steven Ballmer of Microsoft Corporation, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Bob Iger of the Walt Disney Co., and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp.